Comedy Writing Area - Frequently Asked Questions
This page provides answers to some of the more common questions many new sitcom writers find themselves asking.
The answers have been kindly provided by sitcom expert Marc Blake. As well as being a leading stand-up comedian Marc is a comedy trainer and sitcom consultant. He has written the leading book on sitcom writing (see our books page ) and regularly runs sitcom writing courses. His website is www.marcblake.netGot a generic question not covered below? Email us and we'll try and get you an answer.
How should I structure my sitcom?
A sitcom script is divided into scenes. The purpose of a scene is to move the action forwards. Each scene must advance the story, tell us more about the characters, their relationships and their motivations, plus it ought to be funny. Each scene can be as short or as long as you want it to be, but the norm is somewhere between half a page (a visual gag, perhaps) and five to seven pages that twist the plot and throw our characters into ever deeper conflict. About 15 scenes is a good rule of thumb for a ½ hour script. Remember that they can only be interior or exterior scenes and each time you pass between the two – that’s another scene. For more on plotting see my book…
I've got an idea for a sitcom. How do I know it is a good idea?
It’s pretty hard to guess without a whole script. The Office , in itself, tells us nothing about what it’s about – nor does the Royle Family . Read up on what’s likely or not to sell and keep an eye on this website for forthcoming projects.
I have written on some things you ought not attempt in my book… otherwise, so long as you have a small cast of recognisable and conflicted characters in a limited setting with the potential for comedy over several series, then you are on the right lines. Some sitcoms can be turned down for being too funny. Sometimes, the idea is too expensive, sometimes too limiting. Sometimes there is something similar in the pipeline. As in Film, remember the maxim ‘No one knows anything’.
Make a checklist of what makes a good sitcom and mark your idea according to it. Then go for it!
I’m thinking about writing a sitcom about a ****** - one has already been shown in the last couple of years with the same theme. Should I avoid?
Yes. If it was a hit then yours won’t happen. If it flopped then it carried the stench of defeat until it becomes ‘just another project’. If ratings were middling, then commissioning heads will probably feel much the same way about a similar project.
Can you guys give me feedback on 1st draft?
Yes. See the script consultation page on this website to find out more.
Is getting commissioned easy?
No, but write a professional script that adheres to the precepts listed above and you stand a good chance of getting interest in your work. Be prepared to write several spec scripts before that elusive option.
Is it easy to become a successful sitcom writer?
Simple. That’s’ why there are so many ; -$
How much can I earn?
Five figures rising to six. Seven if you are John Sullivan, Roy Clarke or Simon Nye.
Should I get an agent or go freelance?
You have to begin freelance as no agent will touch you without at least one script to show your writing potential. The first few scripts that you write ought to act as selling documents for further work.
Is now a good time to write a sitcom?
How should I format my script?
This is not something that can be quickly covered - you need to read up on this in a book. The right hand side of the page is fine, as is justified, as is screenplay format. Simply make it readable and correctly punctuated!
Any tips on how to best motivate myself?
Don’t get it right – get it written!
Nothing in the world can take the place of perseverance. Talent will not; nothing in the world is more common than men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Perseverance and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan “press on” has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.
It won’t write itself!
How many episodes should I write?
Six for a series in Britain, although shows like My Family or Last of the Summer Wine have the traditional run of 13. When submitting, write two episodes. The pilot (which introduces all the characters) and one other episode.
Should I avoid swear words even if it means it is less realistic?
Generally yes if you are aiming for a pre watershed ( 9pm) show. If you are aiming for BBC3 or C4, then a splash of verisimilitude is fine. Don’t overdo it though – there are limits on the number of f***s that you can use. The c***s.
What is best – a storyline throughout the series or individually contained episodes?
There is no simple answer to that question as broadcasters wax and wane on the issue of whether a narrative throughline will keep viewers watching versus having individual episodes (e.g. Men Behaving Badly , Only Fools and Horses , The Simpsons ) which can be dropped into the schedules at any time. Their problem not yours. Your issue is to write what you think fits. Keep to your vision.
How long should my script be?
Read it out loud. 30 mins for BBC. 24 for ITV or C4/ C5. Include stage directions.
How can I tell if my script is going to take 30 mins of screen time? No more, no less.
Just read it out and if it roughly comes in at the right timing you’re OK.
Should I write with actors in mind?
Thorny one. What if they aren’t available? However, stars do get sitcoms made. On balance I would say that it’s best to write always with the character in mind and let your producer worry about the casting.
Should I aim my script at a particular TV channel?
Yes. Each channel has a different remit. BBC1 wants broad audience based comedies in order to attract a huge family viewing audience. BBC2 was traditionally the nursery slope for new comedy, but that position has now gone to BBC3, where innovative and darker comedy is produced. BBC2 is quality led, with cult hits and shorter runs.
ITV has struggled to find a mainstream success since the 1970’s (Love thy Neighbour, On the Buses) but they are there. The controller of comedy has publicly stated that she wants a big mainstream hit, although she has re-commissioned ‘Shane’ which seems to mitigate against it.
Channel Four has a remit to minority groups and interests and it sometimes appears transparent that they are doing an Asian/Women/Black/Disabled sitcom. They buy in a lot from the US, so there are limited slots. You can be radical and forward thinking on Four. They welcome it.
Channel Five is keen on producing more comedy, but it’s too early to see a pattern. Sky also creates home-grown comedy. Satellite viewing tends to be more surfing-orientated and, other than the Simpsons (which, alongside sport, bankrolled the entire channel), no sitcom has as yet ‘taken’.
Catch phrases – how do you advise I create one?
They will come out of the combination of actor and script. Sometimes you will be unaware that it has happened until well after broadcast. Perry and Croft used to write characters with simple catch phrases as part of their gang show output. Fraser, Miss Brahms and Windsor Davies come to mind, although Lord knows why.
Write your script first, then wait and see.
What are commissioners looking for?
Fresh situations, sustainable characters, a funny script. The promise of longevity.
How do I know if my script is good enough to be sent off?
You don’t. Send it when you’re happy with it. Never be happy with a first draft. If you have finished your script, stick it in a drawer for at least three weeks. When you return to it, if it is still the same masterpiece that you left in there, then send it out. Good luck!
How much should I write before sending off script?
30 min script. X 2.
Who should I send my script to?
Productions companies listed in Writer’s & Artist’s Yearbook. There is also a list on this website. Be aware some will not accept scripts so do some research.
How long do production companies take? I haven’t heard back yet.
Give them three months then call or write to politely enquire about it. Then the same at six months.
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